Spending an hour with Bruno Mars, one gets the distinct sense that the 27-year-old pop star was born late.
There's his sartorial style, for starters. Arriving at his record company's Midtown offices to discuss his new album, Unorthodox Jukebox, out today, Mars wears his trademark fedora and two gold necklaces, establishing a sort of Sinatra-meets-Saturday Night Fever vibe. His manners also are old-school dapper; he gallantly pauses to let a female reporter descend a staircase before he does, then asks her if it's OK if he smokes. Granted permission, he grabs a cigarette and a can of Coca-Cola -- Classic, of course.
Then Mars begins listing his musical influences, and the first names that come up are performers who peaked decades before he was a gleam in his parents' eyes: Elvis (Presley, not Costello). Chuck Berry. Little Richard. Jerry Lee Lewis. "Guys like Jackie Wilson and James Brown -- they were like, 'Watch me dance; I'm going to set this whole place on fire,'" Mars says. "You see that as a kid, you're just blown away."
Acknowledging the past has served Mars well. The first single from his 2010 pop-soul debut, Doo-Wops & Hooligans, shared its title with a 35-year-old Billy Joel hit. Mars' Just the Way You Are -- a baby-smooth, hip-hop-laced profession of everlasting love -- topped the pop charts and earned him a Grammy for best male pop vocal performance.
A follow-up, the similarly pining (if more angst-ridden) Grenade, also went to No. 1, helping propel Doo-Wops to sales of 1.8 million. While not exactly Taylor Swift or Adele turf, that's an impressive figure for a new artist in the 21st century, particularly a male singer/songwriter, a breed that hasn't been in abundance in the pop stratosphere lately.
A Retrofitted 'Jukebox'
With Jukebox, Mars is looking to the future, but without forgetting his old heroes. "I'm going to be singing songs like Just the Way You Are and Grenade until the day I die," he says. "But it was time for me to write new songs. I've got to have fun when I work, and for me, that means trying new things, expanding the sound."
The taut, rhythmically charged first single, Locked Out of Heaven -- currently at No. 2 on USA TODAY's Top 40 chart -- has inspired comparisons to The Police, a band Mars has expressed admiration for. On other tunes, his fluid tenor takes on a rough urgency that evokes the edgier work of Michael Jackson, another favorite.
Also notable are the lyrics, which at times defy the wholesome image established by Doo-Wops. "Your sex takes me to paradise," Mars sings on Heaven, while Moonshine was written after a night of "drinking and having a great time," Mars says. Booze and lust inform the darker, heavier Gorilla.
RollingStone.com senior editor Monica Herrera figures that Mars is "trying to toughen up" his image a bit, to sing about "the kind of love that carries a bit of danger," citing the piano-fueled post-breakup lament When I Was Your Man.
And Mars' flair for melody -- he helped craft hits for others before his breakthrough, as part of the songwriting/production team the Smeezingtons -- is a "signal that he could have longevity," Herrera says, though not a guarantee of it. "The question will be how much personal affinity his fans develop for him. It's harder for male pop stars to make that connection these days -- male pop stars older than Justin Bieber, anyway."
Actually, Mars got his start in show business even earlier than Bieber did. Born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu (his dad, thinking that his son resembled wrestler Bruno Sammartino, gave him the nickname that he would adopt), he began performing around age 5 in the family band, the Love Notes. His father, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native of Puerto Rican descent, played percussion, while his Filipino mom sang and danced; uncles and siblings were also part of the act.
But it was little Bruno's Elvis impersonation that soon became the main attraction, "not because I sounded or looked like him," Mars insists. "I was just little, and it was a gimmick. Like a side show." The side show was good enough to earn attention outside Hawaii: Check out the 1992 Nicolas Cage/Sarah Jessica Parker film Honeymoon in Vegas, and you'll spot a pre-adolescent Mars, adorned in sequins, crooning I Can't Help Falling in Love With You.
"My dad was a huge Elvis fan, and he'd always play the videos, of when he was young, especially," Mars recalls. "I remember watching him sing Hound Dog on TV -- The Milton Berle Show, I think -- and you could barely hear him because the girls were screaming so loud."
Modernity Makes Impression
As a teenager, Mars graduated to more contemporary fare, soaking up the syncopated rhythms that Timbaland and Pharrell Williams laid down for the likes of Missy Elliott and Aaliyah. Deciding he wanted to make his own grooves, he eventually signed with Motown Records, "but nothing happened. I was young, and it was a different era. It wasn't like in the movies, where you're in the studio doing exciting things all day long. But I don't hold any grudges. I got a little check to keep me afloat for a while."
He also met another tunesmith, Philip Lawrence; with Ari Levine, they formed the Smeezingtons, whose credits include smash singles such as B.o.B's Nothin' on You and Flo Rida's Right Round. The trio co-write and produce Mars' solo material. For Jukebox, they got additional input from such accomplished friends as Mark Ronson and Jeff Bhasker.
Lawrence echoes Mars' assertion that having a good time is key to the creative process. "We have to crack a joke every five minutes; that's who we are. All of us want to be part of something great, and now we have the luxury of working with these other amazing talents, so that we can play chess instead of checkers. But if we stopped having fun, we'd have to hang it up."
Mars gave fans a peek at his playful side in October, as host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live. A series of comic skits cast the singer in roles such as a deranged amusement-park mannequin and a 17-year-old girl sassing her mom on a Maury-like TV slugfest. "You just jealous because I'm young and I got a debit card and I know where the paaahr-ty is," Mars declared, in character.
"I've dated girls like that," Mars admits, chuckling. "Are you kidding? I know exactly what that is."
When asked if he's dating right now, Mars uses his sense of humor to duck the issue. "I have a lovely girlfriend. Lovely. Has it been a long time? What's a long time? It's been a week and a half. That's long, right? Wait -- that's her right now."
Mars digs out his cellphone, which didn't ring. "Hi, Halle, how are you? We were just talking about you," He puts the phone down and whispers: "Halle Berry. That's her."
Hanging up on his fantasy sweetheart, Mars concedes that he's less comfortable talking about romance than he is singing about it. "I feel like I'm blessed to have someone to enjoy things with," he allows. "But I'm super-private." He has what he calls "a love/hate relationship" with social media. "I love that I can talk to my fans through Twitter, to cut out the middleman. I've done interviews where my words have gotten twisted, so it's nice to be able to have things coming straight from me."
On the other hand, "I love artists like Prince, who hold on to that element of mystery. You don't know where Prince is in this world. He's probably on a unicorn somewhere."
But if previous generations of pop idols continue to hold a strong allure, Mars' focus is clearly on the path before him. He doesn't yet know where the road will lead. "Hopefully in 10 years, I'll be on a beach somewhere, getting a phone call about a reunion tour with the boys," he quips. "Of course, I'll be overweight and singing the songs about four keys lower."
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